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Mona Hatoum, Undercurrent (red), 2008. Photo Stefan Rohner, Courtesy Kunstmuseum St. Gallen

Mona Hatoum at The Tate Modern

7 May 2016 Tom Faber

The first major retrospective of Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum presents challenging installations and sculptures that question ideas of comfort, conflict and nationhood, laying the human body out as a political battleground.

In one room there’s the piercing shriek of electric current passed through household objects, rising to an unholy pitch before abruptly vanishing. In another rows of steel cages are lit from a bulb within, casting complex, sinister shadows on the walls. Elsewhere red blown-glass globules struggle in prisons, the world is set alight in red neon, and visitors travel through the human body in a white cylinder. The first UK retrospective of the work of Mona Hatoum puts visitors through a series of provocative, unsettling scenarios which pose myriad questions. That it offers no answers is both this exhibition’s fascination and its great success.

Hatoum was born in Beirut to a Palestinian family in 1952, and settled in London in 1975 after civil war broke out in Lebanon. Studying at the Slade School of Art she developed an interest in exploring gender and race through performance, and eventually became known for large-scale installations exhibited across the world. Though a well-respected member of the art community, this is the first time there has been a major retrospective on Hatoum in Britain.

While The Tate Modern doesn’t order her pieces chronologically, a career of two distinct phases still emerges. The first is her early work, one-off performances in the late 70’s and 80’s, here recorded as stills and artist’s notes. By the end of the 80’s Hatoum was dissatisfied with performance, finding the role of the viewer too passive, and moved towards confrontational sculptures and installations which the viewer could inhabit.

 

Light Sentence, 1992. Photo Philippe Migeat. Courtesy Centre Pompidou

 

Hatoum’s life story, the twice-exiled daughter of an exiled family, details a succession of displacements and boundaries which pulse through her work. Maps are everywhere, with their tricky, mutable borders and challenging lines. Present Tense shows 2,200 blocks of Nablus soap, a local Palestinian product, studded with tiny red beads that depict the new national borders agreed in 1993’s Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and Palestine. These remote islands of territory are disconnected, academic, movingly embedded in the product of a ravaged land.

At times Hatoum’s political pieces take on more abstract forms, notably referencing Minimalist forms such as the cube. In the room of Light Sentence, a bulb walled in by metal cages casts a matrix of threatening shadows on the walls. The striking Impenetrable is a series of wires hung in the shape of a cube. From afar it’s a beautiful construction, a weightless exercise in form. Up close it’s revealed that these cords are in fact barbed wire, the universal symbol of humanity’s conflict and violent boundaries. It’s simultaneously beautiful and unsettling, a trick which Hatoum ably pulls across much of her work.

That’s not to say there isn’t hope in these pieces. + and - is a bed of sand being eternally sculpted and erased by a metal arm, a gnomic comment on the endless cycle of rewriting memory and history. On the balcony is Jardin Suspendu, a series of hanging military sandbags in which Hatoum has planted grass seeds. If the weather holds they should sprout in the coming weeks. Though still ambiguous, here there is a sense of hope and new growth coming from conflict.

 

Hotspot III, 2009. Photo Agostino Osio, Courtesy Fondazione Querini Stampalia Onlus

 

Though Hatoum’s work is clearly informed by her fractured biography, there is little here which is overtly personal. Even when her work explores the human body, as it frequently does, the focus is the body as a political fighting ground. Corps Etranger, her most famous piece, is a padded cylindrical tube that you enter, surrounded by the sound of rushing blood. On the floor is a video of an endoscopy which travels through Hatoum’s hair and across the microscopic surface of her face before entering her intestines. It’s an eerie experience, essentially stepping into someone else’s body, and again Hatoum refuses to readily direct the viewer on how to understand the piece. It nevertheless leaves a powerful impact, echoing the violation of surveillance which she so presciently explored in the early 90’s.

Outside of the human body, domestic environments play a recurring role in her work. Homeland, which electrocutes a series of household objects, conjures the uncanny otherness of our familiar world. The scaled-up cheese grater looks like an instrument of torture while Daybed, a huge vegetable grater laid down like a bed, challenges us to feel at home in a space of conflict and pain.

Two of Hatoum’s most arresting pieces are displayed at the end of the exhibition.Undercurrent is a red woven rug of electrical cables, each leading to a lightbulb which goes on and off like rhythmic breathing. Nearby is Hotspot, a globe whose land is fashioned from red neon lights that flash malevolently, turning the whole planet into a conflict zone.

Whether the work is from 1980 or last year, this exploration of Hatoum’s work presents a remarkably timely comment on the separations and anxieties of modern society. By examining the local and the bodily she creates art that communicates universally, challenging us to be better, to think, to seek change.

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